Estate bequests by donors past and present keep the world’s largest museum and research complex humming
Anyone who aspires to estate planning that's both responsible and bold can take heart from the example of James Smithson. The English scientist drew his will in 1826 and made a leap of faith. He bequeathed his entire fortune to the United States of America, a place he had never visited, to found there "an establishment for the increase & diffusion of knowledge," and he trusted the young nation to do right by his legacy. When the Smithsonian Institution was finally established, 20 years later, it began with no securely plotted course. There was certainly no predicting that it would one day become the world's largest museum and research complex. Smithson would surely be pleased by the mighty structure that has arisen on the bedrock of his fortune and his noble directive. For more than a century and a half, the Smithsonian has sought to realize his vision through scientific investigation, the collection and display of artifacts of every kind, and an enthusiastic embrace of art, culture and technology.
Though we do not know Smithson's precise motive for taking the risk he did, the standard he set for personal investment in an ideal was admirably clear and has inspired other men and women to support the establishment that bears his name. The Smithsonian is heavily reliant today on monies directly appropriated by Congress. But for America's museum to thrive, it depends as well on the personal benefaction of its friends, who contribute in a variety of ways, including the one James Smithson chose for his estate.
One need not be at Smithson's extraordinary level of means to mirror his gesture of benefaction. Consider Jean Chisholm, a longtime Smithsonian member who, in 1996, donated $30,000 to establish the Institution's first gift annuity. She was 92 at the time. What prompted her donation? "I just want to give something back for the great pleasure I have had visiting Smithsonian museums," she said. When Chisholm died a few years later, we learned that her foresight and generosity were greater still. She provided in her will for her family and her college, and then bequeathed the balance of her estate—an amount many times her annuity—to her fondly remembered Smithsonian.
During my four years as Secretary, I've had the privilege of meeting many individuals who, like Jean Chisholm, are including the Smithsonian in their estate plans. I've been as encouraged by their testimonials of affection for the Institution as I've been moved by their expressions of personal gratification at having shaped legacies that will be realized through the Smithsonian. The deeply generous spirit of these modern benefactors renews James Smithson's founding impulse and ensures the Institution's vitality and well-being. We could not be more grateful to them.
I've made the Smithsonian a beneficiary of my own estate planning because I believe that it's an enterprise of remarkable reach and consequence, embodying ideals—a sympathetic and encompassing curiosity, a passion for learning, explanation and understanding—whose worth to the nation, and indeed to the world, is beyond measure. In our day, the statement "To the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C., I give. . . ." acknowledges both a glorious past and a future of boundless promise. That future is more easily imagined today than it was in 1826, but I've no doubt that the reality will, once again, outstrip imagination.
"It's a poor sort of memory that only works backwards," says a character in Through the Looking-Glass, and that sly wisdom bears noting this side of the glass as well. Remembering forward was almost certainly a motive that drove James Smithson. I invite you to join me in crafting your own legacy to America by naming the Smithsonian in your will and extending the chain of benefaction to the nation whose first links were forged by Smithson's brave, benevolent act.